Denis the Carthusian

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Theologian and mystical writer, called the Ecstatic Doctor; b. 1402 or 1403 at Ryckel, Belgium; d. Roermond, Holland, March 12, 1471. After leaving the university at Cologne as a master of arts in 1424, in that or the following year he became a Carthusian at Roermond. From 1432 until 1434 he held the office of procurator. nicholas of cusa insisted upon having him as assistant during his reform visitations in the Rhineland in 1451 and 1452. Denis was put in charge of a Carthusian foundation at Bois-le-Duc in 1465, but in 1469 he resigned because of failing health and returned to Roermond.

Denis was a prolific writer. His works fill 42 volumes in quarto, with two index volumes, in the Montreuil-Tournai-Parkminster edition (18961935). There are 14 volumes of commentaries on the Scripture, and commentaries on Pseudo-Dionysius, Peter Lombard, Boethius, and John Climacus. He wrote a compendium of the Summa of St. Thomas Aquinas. Among his minor works are 21 treatises aimed at the reformation of the Church and of Christian society. There are also some letters written to princes on this topic, and others about a crusade against the Turks. In consequence of several revelations he had a premonition of the calamities threatening the Christian world if a reformation did not take place in time.

Although an eclectic, Denis was no mere compiler. He sifted critically and organized his diverse sources with a powerful analytic and synthetic mind. The many editions of his commentaries and spiritual treatises in the 16th century testify to their popularity. SS. Ignatius Loyola, Francis de Sales, and Alphonsus Liguori read and quoted him often. In recent years an increasing number of monographs have been devoted to the study of his many-sided work.

Denis was much concerned to lead souls to contemplation. His most important work on the subject is his De contemplatione (Opera omnia 41.135289). He thought contemplation in the highest sense to be a negative knowledge of God, by which the soul, inflamed by love, aided by the gift of wisdom and a special illumination, arrives at ecstatic union with Him. This negative knowledge of God supposes a positive one, which attributes in an infinite degree to the Creator every perfection found in creation. The positive knowledge of God, through the operation of the gift of wisdom and special illumination, sometimes becomes "savory" (wisdom is sapientia, which is derived from sapere, to savor) and produces an experience of contact of loving knowledge with God. This experience in itself deserves to be called true mystical contemplation. But the contemplative may progress further, that is, to an awareness that the perfections of creatures, however purified his concept of them may be, fall infinitely short of God's excellence. Therefore, drawn on by illuminating graces, the contemplative turns away from the contemplation of God in the mirror of creation and tries the "negative way." He now sees God as not good, not wise, and so on, because these attributes, the concept of which is derived from creatures, are incapable of expressing what God really is. Denis sometimes referred to God as superbonissimus, supersapientissimus, i.e., more than supremely good, or more than supremely wise. Realizing this, the contemplative prefers to remain in silent adoration before the Inconceivable One, "smiting with a sharp dart of longing love upon that thick cloud of unknowing" (see Cloud of Unknowing, ch. 6). When the soul's love is sufficiently purified and intensified, it may, by a special grace and for a short time "enter and penetrate an inner keep, outside of which knowledge must remain." No one can understand such things unless he has experienced them.

The influence of Pseudo-Dionysius on the mystical doctrine of Denis is prominent, as it was also on the older Carthusian authors, hugh of balma and guigo de ponte. Denis, however, did not limit himself to a treatment of the sublime. His Opuscula deal also with such topics as the devout recitation of the Psalms, meditation, the combatting of inconstancy of heart, mortification, the reformation of the inner man, progress, and the custody of the heart.

Bibliography: a. stoelen, Dictionnaire de spiritualité ascétique et mystique. Doctrine et histoire, ed. m. viller et al. (Paris 1932) 3:430449. Theologisch Woordenboek, ed. h. brink (Roermond 195258) 1:10562; Month 26 (1961) 218230. f. vandenbroucke, "Nouveaux milieux, nouveaux problèmes du XIIe au XIVe siècle," j. leclercq et al., La Spiritualité du moyen âge, v.2 of l. bouyer et al., Histoire de la spiritualité chrétienne (Paris 1960).

[b. du moustier]